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"The facts don't tell us how to feel"

I’ve just read a book review that both interested and moved me, and this has made me want to share a little of this.

It’s in a recent edition of the London Review of Books, in which Kieran Setiya, who teaches philosophy in the US, writes about the Cambridge philosopher, Frank Ramsey, and a biography of him by Cheryl Misak that came out last year. I had heard of Ramsey, though had only a vague sense of who he was, and that he was at Cambridge at the same time as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It turns out that he was a mathematician and an economist as well as a philosopher, and wasn’t just brilliant in all three subjects, but did important work in them all too.

I hadn’t known that Ramsey had died when not quite 27 years old. I think it was a combination of learning this, together with the warm portrayal of Ramsey provided by Setiya, including through his references to Misak’s biography, that led to me feeling moved at the end of the article. I'm sure that the way Setiya ended it, which I will quote from below, contributed to my emotional response. I wonder if my interest in Ramsey’s philosophy also played a part.

That might sound a little odd, connecting an emotional response to the often dry subject of philosophy. And the branch of philosophy that Ramsey was part of, analytic philosophy, often seems particularly dry. I’ve recently become interested in another branch though - pragmatism - first through reading the work of Richard Rorty (which led me to write this blog post), which seems a little different. And as I read about Ramsey’s ideas about belief and truth - “that a given belief is to be understood in terms of its cause and effects” - these struck me as being at the very least congruent with a pragmatist approach - which is congruent in turn, I believe, with a solution-focused approach: What difference would that (holding that belief) make?

So, being a learner, I was pleased and relieved to read that Ramsey called these ideas “pragmatism”, and that he drew on the work of the original American pragmatist, C.S Peirce, who seems to me to be a forerunner of social constructionism. There is certainly a very human dimension to Peirce's “notion of truth as what everyone will believe in the end”.

Setiya reports that Misak returns more than once to Ramsey’s “most lovable essay”, which was the write up of a talk he gave to the Cambridge Apostles, an intellectual club at the University. Ramsey concludes this, Setiya tells us, “with a pragmatic argument for optimism”:

I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing. I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me and depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.

It must not have been long after this, in November 1929, that Ramsey developed a chill, followed soon after by jaundice. He was admitted to Guy’s Hospital in London, and an operation found his gall bladder inflamed, but no diagnosis could be made. He died on 19 January 1930.

Let me quote the whole of the final paragraph of Setiya’s article:

“Although he has few professed disciples, Ramsey’s ideas are pervasive in philosophy today: you can’t open a copy of Mind without finding an allusion to them. Wittgenstein is more famous, but the architecture of the discipline now is closer to Ramsey’s design. Philosophers could be depressed about his early death or thrilled that he lived at all. The facts don’t tell us how to feel; but it’s pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities”.

And now I shall order Cheryl Misak’s book: Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Setiya’s review, ‘The Ramsey Effect’, is in the 18 February 2021 issue of London Review of Books (Vol 43, no 4, pp37-39).

Further listening and reading

In this episode of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking, broadcast shortly after the publication of her book, Cheryl Misak discusses the legacy of Frank Ramsey.

This essay by Misak, Philosophy Must Be Useful, was published on the Aeon website a year earlier.

Postscript - This seems worth sharing, from the entry on Ramsey in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, given the importance of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations to the later thinking of Steve de Shazer: “After meeting and falling out with Ramsey when visiting Keynes in 1925, Wittgenstein returned to settle in Cambridge in 1929. He was admitted as a Ph.D. student, submitting the Tractatus as his thesis, Ramsey was his supervisor; they met regularly during what was to be the last year of Ramsey’s life. Wittgenstein was later to recall the significance of these conversations for his own intellectual development in the preface to Philosophical Investigations.”

Guy Shennan

14 March 2021

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